Find out what should make you happy but doesn't - and vice versa...
Are some of us better at recognising happiness? Sonja Lyubomirsky explores this in her new book, The Myths of Happiness (Penguin), which is out now.
Happiness comes from unexpected places. The worst thing that has ever happened to you can, with time, be the best thing – the divorce that leads to new love; the redundancy that kickstarts a new business.. Likewise, your happiest moments can lead to your unhappiest – the dream job which robs you of time with your family; the dream home which chains you to a barely manageable mortgage. In truth, we’re very bad at knowing what will make us happy. We think ‘I’ll be happy when… I find love/ get rich/ get promoted’. We’re usually wrong on all counts.
Read on to find out the three things that shouldn’t make you happy but can – and vice versa…
Your marriage is over - or you're single and searching. You feel you can't be happy until you're safely coupled. It isn't true. In the two years after a divorce, happiness plummets but we rally sooner than we expect. The myth of the sad single could not be further than the truth. Single women draw more purpose and value from a greater variety of sources - friends, extended family, jobs, courses, local communities. They're closer to siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and develop more new friendships as they age.
Action: Release yourself from the goal of 'finding the one' and build a rich life flourishing as an individual. Focus on yourself but leave the door open for future relationships. A happy, optimistic well rounded person is more likely to find love anyway!
If we imagine receiving a life changing, even life limiting, diagnosis, we believe we'll never be happy again. In truth, our psychological immune system will kick in and find a way to move forward. Hundreds of studies have found that illness can be a time for growth and meaning, a lesson in making the most of each day and appreciating all we have.
Action: The stream of negative emotions that will also come may serve a purpose. Anger to galvanise, sadness to aid reflection and understanding. Those who have experienced adversity are ultimately happier than those who haven't.
It’s a common myth that the younger we are, the happier we are. Research conclusively confirms that older people experience more positive emotions and are less sensitive to daily negativity and stress. We recognise life is fragile and precious.
Action: Ditch the stuff you don’t want to do, make the most of what you have left, and focus on the things that matter - the things that make you truly happy!
We all want more and we’re all convinced it will make us happier. In fact income makes little impression on daily happiness - and with every salary hike, comes adaption. We spend more (the dream kitchen, the new car) our needs increase - two thirds of the benefits of a pay rise are erased after one year.
Action: To buy happiness, remember that a negative experience carries a bigger hit than a positive one. The thrill of a new house is outweighed quickly if you’re heavily in debt to pay for it. Spend money on experiences, personal development and challenges not things’ - a concert, a volunteering holiday, learning the guitar or climbing a mountain. Time with friends and family makes us happy - and of course money can facilitate this - travelling to visit a friend, meals and holidays and making memories with those we love. Variety gives more happiness than static possessions (so rent a holiday home don’t buy one.) Finally, spending money on others and giving to causes you believe in boosts happiness and puts everyone on an upward spiral.
When I find my soulmate, I’ll feel complete - and be happy..’ We all believe it and at first, it’s true - but it’s not a happy-ever-after! Marriage generally boosts happiness for about two years - then happiness returns to previous levels. What’s happening is called hedonic adaption’. Passionate love does not - cannot - last. But the shift into companionate love brings a drop in happiness. Irritations build… he keeps leaving his socks on the floor! Perhaps we have moments of wondering deep down if we married the wrong person?
Action: First, recognise this dissatisfaction is normal, common place. You can also slow it down. Make an active effort to appreciate the value of your marriage. Imagine life without him. Shift focus from the dirty socks to the tea he brought you in bed. At the same time, seek variety and create more unexpected moments.Surprise’ prevents hedonic adaption. Novelty and learning new skills makes couples feel closer and more attracted to one another - choose skiing or dance classes over dinner and a movie. Finally, remember the power of touch. Not just sex but a squeeze of the hand, an arm on the shoulder - touch creates a mild high and rekindles warmth and tenderness.
The wish for children can be so innate and overwhelming, first we expect them to be the fount of all joy - and in the bigger picture children bring magic and meaning. But does the day in, day out of parenthood make us 'happy'? No! Decades of research show that, if your child is young, adolescent or troubled, you'll probably be less happy than non-parents. Children are costly, exhausting and stressful - but even admitting this makes us unhappier still - it feels like wishing our children away.
Action: Actually, it isn't. Loving your child is not the same as loving parenthood. You can do one and not the other! On a daily basis, it's usually the smaller stresses that most impact happiness. We enlist support for the big things, reframe and rationalise, while the little ones build. Seek solutions to the small stresses - whether it's a family meeting, support, sanctions. Organise regular breaks from parenting where you can, using sleepovers with friends and family. Writing down - journaling - your deepest feelings about parenting has also been shown to make us happier. We make sense of our emotions and gain crucial perspective. Finally, hold on to the bigger picture. The mess, the school run, the teenage strop... all will shift with time. Older people derive huge happiness from relationships with their adult children - and having grandchildren is routinely reported as the best experience of their lives!